Messages in the Human Genome: are they from God, or maybe aliens? It sounds Sci-fi but our knowledge of the DNA code is merging with our ability to write increasingly intelligent algorithms. We just wrote malware into DNA code. What will this mean to you?
Back in 1990 the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Human Genome Project along with the UK, France, Germany, Japan and China. Originally, government planners thought it would take 15 years to complete but goaded by a privately funded competing project run by the Celera Corporation initial results were announced in 2001.
The results were both staggering and surprising. Computer code is composed of ones and zeros. Our genetic code is composed of base pairs made from only four chemical base “letters” – G, A, T, and C – to make a gene. The Human Genome has over 1.3 million genes but out of those, vast stretches appear unused or dormant. Only 19,000 to 20,000 (about 1.5%) genes actually are active.
With all that dense but “quiet” code it wasn’t long before observers leapt to the hypothesis that there might be “messages” in the code. Could the Almighty have left us a message for us to decipher just as we need a new spiritual guidance? Sure enough, claims were made that researchers had found strings of code that could be interpreted as phrases of Aramaic (the daily language of Jesus).
This claim never seemed to gain traction except with some Creationists. More popular in our secular society was the idea that aliens had engineered us at our origin and left messages hidden in the DNA that we could read when we were at the right level of technological maturity. Some claim that there are distinct mathematical relationships in our genes that reveal these harbingers from the stars. In addition, shows like the History Channel’s number one program, “Ancient Aliens”, have beaten this theme into the American consciousness pretty thoroughly.
Reality check: there are no reputable scientists or research that substantiate either the spiritual or extra-terrestrial claims. But instead consider Yuval Noah Harari’s pithy insight: “organisms are algorithms”. All life can be looked at as just information processing and we’ve been creating algorithms for everything, sometimes with unintended consequences. Harari wants us to be aware of the staggering implications to us, especially given our 21st century increasing mastery of the intersection of biology, computer algorithms and technology. (Here is a video of him at last year’s World Economic Forum.)
Well, the implications of that intersection are arriving. Researchers at the University of Washington have announced they have hacked DNA and inserted malware into DNA. We are increasingly using genomic sequencing for all sorts of reasons as the costs decline and the accuracy goes up. Originally, sequencing an individual’s genome cost millions. The cost rapidly fell to $100,000. Today we are at $1,000 and researchers confidently look forward to a $100 test.
What does this mean? Andy Greenberg’s referenced article from Wired says it best:
“…But as genetic sequencing is increasingly handled by centralized services—often run by university labs that own the expensive gene sequencing equipment—that DNA-borne malware trick becomes ever so slightly more realistic. Especially given that the DNA samples come from outside sources, which may be difficult to properly vet.
…researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest. ‘There are a lot of interesting—or threatening may be a better word—applications of this coming in the future…”
In 2017, law enforcement officials were outraged when thousands of convictions were questioned because of problematic DNA tests in the New York City crime lab. And, NYC’s lab is not the only one. Similar episodes pop up in many cities in the US and the FBI’s lab. Imagine if a purposeful malware attack exploited local and federal labs across the country rendering the evidence questionable? You might be accused of a crime based upon totally false premises while the guilty go free.
Genetic testing kits have become very popular. Have you used 23andMe, TellMeGen or Ancestry.com? If so, you’re not alone. Over 26million people have already taken an at-home test. How about if a criminal enterprise used DNA malware to take over the computers of a DNA testing service to steal all your personal information? We are alarmed when we lose our personal identifier information (name, SS#, address, etc.) from a retailer or credit bureau to hackers. How would you feel if they had all your genetic/biological information, too?